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Derrick Rose on the New York Knicks, trying to help a surprisingly competitive young team get over the hump and take things to the next level. Seems like we’ve seen this before.
The New York Knicks are one of the NBA’s pleasant surprises. After winning only 17 games two years ago, they’re a respectable 14-15. They don’t shoot well, but led by a star forward who tops the team in points, rebounds and assists, along with a man whose glory years were in the Windy City, the wind beneath their wings is a much-improved defense, particularly against 3-pointers. They’re on pace for the equivalent of a 14-win improvement from last year. Knicks fans can smile. They can breathe.
The 2015-16 Knicks were one of the NBA’s pleasant surprises. After winning only 17 games the year before, they were a respectable 14-15. They didn’t shoot well, but led by a star forward who topped the team in points, rebounds and assists, along with a man whose glory years were in the Windy City, the wind beneath their wings was a much-improved defense, particularly against 3-pointers. Their 32 wins were 15 better than the year before. Knicks fans could smile. They could breathe.
Unfortunately, the 2016 team’s first step toward respectability became the last stop. Over the next three years, they lost 51, 53 and 65 games. Before the 2017 season, Phil Jackson traded for Derrick Rose. They still lost. Jackson was fired. Rose came and went. They still lost. Lost enough to have the best odds of landing Zion Williamson or Ja Morant in the draft and end up with neither. In a lot of ways, this year looks like 2016. There are several reasons to hope things turn out better this time.
Why will it be different this time for the New York Knicks and Derrick Rose?
When Phil Jackson traded for Rose, he acquired Derrick Rose. There was still that kinda juice around the Golden Boy whose body betrayed him. This was, if not the player from his Chicago days, still the presence. The presence was in the last year of the last nine-figure contract he’d ever see. And though those Knicks may not have been a superteam, as Rose infamously claimed, they were a big stage for a player auditioning for a new deal. Adding Rose then meant adding someone whose need for the ball would mean less of it going to then-sophomore Kristaps Porziņģis, which was maybe not ideal from a development point of view.
This time around it’s Tom Thibodeau, Rose’s former coach in Chicago and Minnesota, who either pushed the team to trade for Rose or wrote him a very nice letter of recommendation. The combo guard’s role is different this time around: instead of being the Knicks’ second scoring option, he’s the second option off the bench. So far it’s been a seamless transition, possibly aided by Rose having become a bench player since he left New York. His presence has allowed surprising rookie Immanuel Quickley to showcase more of his off-the-ball game. Rose has also shown some nice synergy with the Knicks’ other rookie, Obi Toppin. Since the former Knick’s return, the bench has been a driving force in every game.
Today’s Knicks are a much younger outfit than they were five years ago. Their best player in 2016 was Carmelo Anthony, then 31. Their youth movement beyond Porziņģis consisted of Langston Galloway and Derrick Williams (both 24) and Jerian Grant (23). This year’s alpha is Julius Randle, 26; he’d have been younger than every Knick starter in 2016 besides KP. Today’s Knicks include hope for the future thanks to R.J. Barrett (20), Quickley (21), Toppin and Mitchell Robinson (both 22). Not only is there exciting potential at every position, there is flexibility as far as payroll and trade assets. The new Knicks own seven first-round picks the next five years in addition to several extra second-rounders. The 2016 Knicks had no draft picks. The lottery pick that belonged to them had been traded five years earlier in the Carmelo deal with Denver. The Nuggets used the Knick pick to select Jamal Murray.
The 2016 Knicks were not a team you’d describe as resilient. After reaching the midpoint of the season at .500, they proceeded to lose 11 of 12 en route to 28 losses in their last 38 games. Over that months-long stretch they had but one miniscule winning streak, a two-game nub. During the collapse Derek Fisher, a second-year coach with no prior experience, was fired and replaced by former Minnesota head coach Kurt Rambis, a man who’d won just 32 games over two full seasons with the Timberwolves. This season’s Knicks, led by another former Minnesota coach, have had five losing streaks so far. They’ve answered four of them with winning streaks.
This year’s team still has to prove it can deal with adversity and evolving expectations. The linchpin of their defense, Mitchell Robinson, is out for weeks after surgery to repair a fracture in his right hand. At some point the rookies will hit the wall. Injuries will arise. So will COVID complications; the Knicks were one of just five teams with no games cancelled before their Saturday matchup with San Antonio was called off due to multiple Spurs contracting the virus. Before Robinson’s injury, four of the Knick starters had started every game. What happens when that continuity falters? When their depth is tested? When players are asked to do more with less?
Next week 2000 fans will be allowed to attend the Knicks game against Golden State. Beyond the obvious health concerns that raises, those fans will be “just happy to be back” for about five minutes. Then they’ll want to see the Knicks win. The playoffs have become a realistic possibility. What happens when a team — a young team — that’s shown growth and confidence all season suffers a bad loss in front of a live audience? The Knicks have played well enough to raise expectations. Can they match or exceed them once the spotlight brightens? If so, maybe the fans will stop fearing a return to the past and can focus on a more promising future. For once.